A Few Points on Twitter and the NBA

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Where do you begin to write the history of pro sports and social media? That's debatable, but for me it was a day in 2007 when I read Curt Schilling's personal breakdown of his start against Kansas City:

Started Dejesus off with some fastballs, which felt like they got more life as I started to throw. Got in on him for a fly ball to right. Grud worked the count to 3-1, laying off the first change at 1-1, and a FB down and away ended up middle in for a hard single to left. Had Teahan down quick and left a split up for another single 1-2 (I think). First pitch slider to Sweeney didn't slide, bad miss. Next slider was better and he stayed on it and hit it hard to right to load the bases. Gordon worked a 7 pitch AB, and chased a good split down for out #2. A lengthy AB from Shealy, saw me go to the split 3-2 which he took for ball 4 to walk in a run. I can't remember if I ever done that? Made a lot of mistakes inside this one AB and it ended up costing us.Overthrowing some balls when I had a chance to end the AB earlier and missing spots too badly to even get him to offer. Gload went 0-1 on a FB away and then I got in on him with a 1-0 cutter for the final out. 33 pitches, bases loaded walk, 1-1 game.

Here was a high-profile major leaguer who was obliterating the filter between athlete and fan. Who needs to read a recap when you can get the nuances and specifics of what happened in the game straight from the guy at the center of it?

Schiling's work on his blog became so prolific that the Onion published a story headlined, "Curt Schilling To Start LiveBlogging From Mound." The Onion's prime feature is absurdity, which is why Charlie Villanueva's halftime tweet fewer than 24 months later was such a revelation. In two years, real life had caught up with satire.

On Thursday, David Stern told Marc Spears that the league will institute some sort of Twitter policy:

Stern described the NBA's guidelines as "nothing too serious.”

"We just need to make sure when it's OK to Tweet and when it's not OK to Tweet so it at least focuses around the game,” he said. "It would look unusual for a guy sitting on the bench to pick up his cell phone, and I think we can agree that he probably shouldn't be writing e-mails. It's not about Twitter; it's about the line of communication. That's what we're focusing on.

"We're happy to let it play out to see if it merits all the attention that it's getting. We don't want to overreact.”

The immediate takeaway from the story was that the NBA is "cracking down" on Twitter, but when you read Stern's comments more closely, they're somewhat reassuring: The league is taking a cautious approach to regulating social media.

You can argue that censorship is a slipppery slope and an entity as image-conscious as the NBA will inevitably clamp down on liberal use of social media by players. That may or may not happen in the near future.

Let's hope not:

  • The NBA's best ambassadors will always be its players, and media like Twitter have enabled them to connect with the league's most valued customers on an unprecedented level. Simply put, Twitter has made the NBA more fun to follow over the past year. Stern told Spears that, "You want to make sure that pop culture doesn't intrude on what brought us here, which is the game, and that we show the right respect for the game." I'm not certain that conflation is correct. For one, "pop culture" and social media aren't the same thing -- any more than pop culture and television. Twitter is a delivery system, a means of transmission.

    Second, it's disingenuous to suggest that "the game" has been more important to the growth of the NBA than popular culture -- and this is coming from someone for whom x's & o's is the prime draw of the pro game. Stern knows this. There's a reason the NBA markets its personalities and overarching narratives more than the Lakers' pinch-post action. However many good reasons exist to prohibit players from posting status updates while they get their second-quarter breather, the intrusion of pop culture into the game's bloodstream isn't one of them.

  • Media like Twitter create a free market for players to present their true selves. For as long as pro sports have been around, fans have had to trust intermediaries to distinguish the good/likable guys from the putzes. Twitter offers a better and more unfiltered way for players to project themselves -- and for fans to make value judgments. People are complicated. The more those complexities can be understood, the better off we are. DeAndre Jordan is a great example of a guy who came into the league with a pre-defined persona: He was an immense talent who dropped to the second round because he was a head case, uncoachable, and not very bright. What we've learned about Jordan -- largely through his forays into social media -- is that these snapshot judgments were unfair. Jordan is clever, committed, and endearing. He's also 20 years old. Were there missteps at College Station? Yes. But any appraisal of Jordan as a "bad guy" is incredibly stilted. But you know what? That's for you to decide. And thanks to social media, the fan has much more information to work with if he wants to make that call.

  • Vehicles like Twitter will undoubtedly embarrass the NBA from time to time. But for every instance that a player bombs on his Twitter feed, there will be countless tweets, blog posts, and who-knows-what's-nexts of guys communicating lucidly, intelligently and with the worldliness that the NBA wants from its athletes. Trust the players and trust the fans.

  • Use of social media is eclipsing the corporate endorsement as the single most effective means for an athlete to market himself. Given that the NBA has a vested interest in its players' marketability, it should recognize that reality and run with it. I'm pretty certain the NBA recognizes this feature of social media and has placed it on the plus side of the ledger.

    Here's a question: Will use of social media be an issue in negotiations of the next collective bargaining agreement? It follows that NBA players want full use of any tool that allows them to realize their monetary value in the marketplace. Social media does that -- and it's likely that the players' union won't take kindly to any attempt to limit an athlete's capacity to capitalize on his brand.

  • The innovators will always be a step ahead of the regulators. Few of us -- and probably no one with the NBA -- anticipated the explosion of this technology. In a couple of years, Twitter will inevitably be replaced or supplemented by something more potent and far-reaching. The idea that you can contain communication with prohibition seems futile, doesn't it?

  • The best course of action for the NBA on this issue might be a little federalism. If the use of social media's greatest hazard
    is the disruption of the team, then let the coaches and management set policy for their respective teams no different than they do music in the locker room.

Few products have benefited more from the rise of social media than the NBA. Media like Twitter have allowed the league's personalities to beam their inner lives unfiltered to the world. That has to be scary for those charged with the responsibility of managing the NBA brand. The best thing they can do is harness this power, and ride it to its full potential.